Exposition of 1 Corinthians 4:6-13, Who will reign with Christ crucified?

1 Corinthians 4:6-13

6 Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. 7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world — right up to this moment.

As stated before, Paul is trying to deal with Corinthian pride and a dangerous reliance on human wisdom. In verse 6 he reveals that his previous statements about himself, Apollos and Cephas — “I follow Paul” (1 Cor. 1:12 and 3:4), “I follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 1:12 and 3:4), and “I follow Cephas” (1 Cor. 1:12) — were actually a polite fiction to avoid naming the real faction leaders in Corinth. Why would Paul substitute for the names of the real faction leaders? David Garland says, “By using aliases rather than fingering the real culprits and by stressing that his deprecation of the role of leaders as servants extends also to himself (‘What, then, is Paul?’ 3:5), he allays potential resentment and makes it easier to swallow the medicine.”[1] Wise!

What, then, was he trying to say to the leaders and their factions? “Learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.” (1 Cor. 4:6). The phrase “what is written” probably refers to the Old Testament quotations Paul has used in the letter to this point. Those sum up to teach this: “While it is the wisdom of the world to indulge in human boasting, there is a simpler, more perfect kind of wisdom, that of boasting only in the Lord.”[2]

In Roman Corinth the desire to rise higher in social standing than others was exceptionally strong, and this cultural pressure had seeped into the church. In 1 Cor. 4:7, Paul unleashes some powerful questions. Ben Witherington puts the first question into this form: “What makes you think that you are so special that you should be judging God’s agents?”[3] After that crushing blow, the hammer strokes keep falling: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7b). You will do yourself a great favor to reflect on those questions! The whole idea of God’s kindness toward us, his grace on our behalf, is that grace is an unexpected gift. God is kind to us in Christ because it pleases him to be so.

You have probably realized that chapter 4 is full of irony and sarcasm to which Paul adds exaggeration in verse 8. Garland explains, “The Corinthians basic blunder is that they already see themselves as morally and spiritually perfected, without having to experience the bodily struggles which Paul sees as the sign of life in Christ.”[4] They imagine themselves to have done all that without Paul!

With tongue in cheek, Paul contrasts the spiritual kings in Corinth (verse 8) with God’s apostles who are led behind a Roman victory parade and have only the expectation of death (verse 9). While the Corinthians are — to their own perception — wise, strong and honored, God’s apostles are foolish, weak and dishonored (verse 10). The painful list of hardships listed in 1 Cor. 4:11-13 recounts all those things Paul and the other apostles have endured to preach Christ crucified to the alleged spiritual champions in Corinth’s divided factions.

In 1 Corinthians 4:13, Paul sums up his apostolic experience by saying, “We have become the scum of the earth and the scrapings from everyone’s shoes”[5] — right up to this moment of reputed Corinthian spiritual triumph.

Just one question stands: Which of these two groups, the spiritually triumphant Corinthian factions or the mistreated apostles, bears a greater resemblance to Jesus crucified on a Roman cross?

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 133.

[2] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 136.

[3] Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) 141.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 138, citing D.W. Kuck.

[5] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 365.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!